Stieg: From Activist to Author by Jan-Erik Pettersson

This comprehensive biography of Stieg Larsson, who shot to fame after his death in 2004, offers little insight on his inner life

Sunday Times, 27 March 2011

When Stieg Larsson died suddenly in 2004, he was barely known beyond the small magazines he contributed to for most of his working life. He smoked 60 cigarettes a day, according to some accounts, and what killed him at the age of just 50 was the walk up seven flights of stairs to his office in Stockholm after the lift broke down.

Since his death, Larsson has become the centre of two vastly compelling narratives. One is about his breathtaking trajectory to commercial success as the author of the bestselling Millennium trilogy of crime novels. The other focuses on the ferocious feud between Eva Gabrielsson, his long-term girlfriend, and his father and brother. Because the couple never married, and Larsson didn’t leave a valid will, his estate was split between his closest blood relatives and the Swedish state, prompting an acrimonious row that remains unresolved to this day.

Perhaps it is that feud that has inhibited Larsson biographers, the latest of whom is Jan-Erik Pettersson. He used to be editor-in-chief of a Swedish publishing house that brought out Larsson’s far from bestselling book on the right-wing Sweden Democrats, and he offers a comprehensive account of Larsson’s pursuit of the links between neo-Nazi parties in Sweden and other countries. He also writes about death threats, and the security measures that became second nature to Larsson and his colleagues at Expo, the magazine that was the inspiration for Larsson’s fictional Millennium magazine.

What his book doesn’t do is provide even small insights into Larsson’s inner life. Gabrielsson is barely mentioned, Pettersson’s account of Larsson’s existence outside the office is sketchy, and huge questions remain unanswered. Larsson is a fascinating subject but the book that sheds light on this perplexing, rather obsessive man remains to be written.

The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

Wallander deserves a better ending to his detective career than the gloomy, miserable future Mankell has planned for him

Sunday Times, 3 April 2011

Nobody familiar with Henning Mankell’s lugubrious detective Kurt Wallander would expect him to settle into a cheerful retirement. But Wallander’s final case arrives at a moment when he’s more anxious than ever, and not much cheered by the engagement of his daughter Linda to the son of a retired naval officer. When Linda’s prospective father-in-law disappears during his morning walk near Stockholm, the case isn’t anything to do with Wallander. But the provincial policeman can’t resist involving himself.

It is clear that the novel’s title refers to Wallander as well as the missing commander. Hakan von Enke was preoccupied at his 75th birthday party a few months earlier, and Wallander suspects that his disappearance has something to do with an incident during the cold war. Espionage, political scandal and a high-level cover-up are the ostensible themes of this valedictory novel, but they’re almost a subplot to Wallander’s deepening gloom and increasingly erratic behaviour.

It begins with an incident when he inexplicably leaves his gun at a restaurant, prompting an inquiry. Intimations of decrepitude and mortality crowd in, not least in the form of a visit from an ex-girlfriend who is dying of cancer. Halfway through, I found myself returning to check that

I hadn’t misread Wallander’s age: “Although he had not yet reached the age of 60, he reminded himself over and over again of his father’s lonely old age, and he knew he had no desire to follow in his footsteps.”

Mankell seems unable to visualise late middle age (Wallander is hardly old) as anything other than a descent into isolation and depression. He is an uneven writer, veering between compelling detective fiction and political thrillers with preposterous plots. The Wallander series has always been his stand-out work, and the detective from Skane deserves a better end than he gets in this relentlessly grim novel.